In a region that has been subjected to severe glaciation, these parks and reserves, with their steep gorges, covering an area of over 1 million ha, constitute one of the last expanses of temperate rainforest in the world. Remains found in limestone caves attest to the human occupation of the area for more than 20,000 years.
Covering an area of over 1 million hectares, the Tasmanian Wilderness constitutes one of the last expanses of temperate rainforest in the world. It comprises a contiguous network of reserved lands that extends over much of south-western Tasmania including several coastal islands.
In contrast to the mainland, the island of Tasmania is a rugged region with fold structures in the western half and fault structures in the east, both of which are represented in the property. The fold structure province in the south-west is an extremely rugged and densely vegetated region with north-south oriented mountain ranges and valley systems. Changing climates have also influenced landscape development, highlighted most recently by late Cainozoic and Pleistocene glacial and periglacial events. Glacial erosion has contributed to spectacular landform features including horns, arêtes, cirques, U-shaped valleys and rock basins (tarns). The coastline has been subjected to a number of sea-level changes during the glaciations and now provides a classic example of a drowned landscape, as shown by the discordant coastline in the south. Special landforms associated with the development of karst have formed through the solution of carbonate rocks such as (Precambrian) dolomite and (Ordovician) limestone. Features include cave systems, natural arches, clints and grikes, dolines, karren, pinnacles and blind valleys.
The vegetation has as much in common with cool, temperate regions of South America and New Zealand as with the rest of Australia. In addition to climatic and edaphic factors, the vegetation has developed in response to fire. Aboriginal occupation over the last 30,000 years has constituted a major source of fire; more recently, much fire can be attributed to the interests of fishermen, logging concerns and prospectors. The fauna is of world importance because it includes an unusually high proportion of endemic species and relict groups of ancient lineage. Owing to the diverse topography, geology, soils and vegetation in association with harsh and variable climatic conditions combining to create a wide array of animal habitats, the fauna is correspondingly diverse.
The insularity of Tasmania, and of the Tasmanian Wilderness in particular, has contributed to its uniqueness and has helped to protect it from the impact of exotic species which has seriously affected the mainland fauna. Tasmania was cut off from mainland Australia by the flooding of Bass Strait at least 8000 years ago, thereby isolating the aboriginal inhabitants. The Tasmanian Aborigines were, until the advent of the European explorer Abel Tasman, the longest isolated human group in world history, surviving some 500 generations without outside influence.
Surveys and excavations of inland river valleys have located 37 cave sites, all considered to have been occupied between 30,000 and 11,500 years ago on the basis of the finds. Recent discoveries of rock art at three cave sites have shown that this painting had a ceremonial significance; hand stencils predominated. Stone artefact scatters and quarries and rock shelters in the Tasmanian highlands indicate a distinctive adaptation to this subalpine environment in the later Holocene. The south coast contains a range of shell middens; evidence available so far suggests changing patterns of shellfish exploitation over several thousand years until the arrival of Europeans in the early 19th century.
Cradle Mountain-Lake st Clair was re-proclaimed as a national park (124,848ha) on 18 July 1971 under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1970, subsequent to which various extensions and boundary adjustments have been made. Cradle Mountain was originally established as a scenic reserve (63,943ha) on 16 May 1922 under the Scenery Preservation Act 1915 and extended by 60,705ha to include Lake st Clair and Oakleigh Creek Conservation Area on 1 December 1936. These areas have also received sanctuary status at various times (31 May 1927 in the case of Cradle Mountain) under the Animal and Birds Protection Act 1919. (Oakleigh Creek conservation Area was not upgraded to national park status along with the rest of the scenic reserve in 1971).
Franklin-Lower Gordon wild Rivers was created a national park on 13 May 1981. Of its 195,200ha expanse, 14,125ha were revoked on 2 september 1982 and vested in the Hydro-Electric Commission. This land is leased to the Department of Lands, Parks and Wildlife from 1 December 1986 for 25 years; for purposes of the National Parks and wildlife Act it is regarded as a state reserve. Three conservation areas covering a total area of 23,135ha ceased to exist on their incorporation into the national park at the time of its establishment, namely Gordon River state Reserve (created on 3 May 1939 and extended on 19 June), Frenchmans Cap National Park (created on 14 June 1941 and extended on 29 August 1951) and Lyell Highway State Reserve (created on 3 May 1939). Southwest National Park was created on 16 October 1969 following the extension and renaming of Lake Pedder National Park.
The latter was created on 23 March 1955, some of which was originally part of Port Davey state Reserve established on 24 October 1951. Southwest National Park was re-proclaimed under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1970 and extended to 372,300ha on 3 November 1976, since when additional extensions have been made on 17 November and 1 December 1976, and on 13 May 1981.
Effective dates of establishment of other conservation areas are as follows:
Walls of Jerusalem National Park 17 June 1981
Exit Cave state Reserve 4 April 1979
Central Plateau Conservation Area 10 February 1982
Southwest Conservation Area 9 July 1980
Southwest National Park was designated a biosphere reserve in October 1977. A conglomerate of national parks, comprising Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair, Franklin-Lower Gordon Wild Rivers and Southwest, was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1982 and named Western Tasmanian Wilderness National Parks. It was renamed Tasmanian Wilderness in 1989. Full details on the progress of reservation, except in the case of state forests and Sarah Island Historic Reserve, are given in the World Heritage nomination (Government of Australia, 1988).